Nina Simone, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, is now known not only for her mix of jazz, blues and folk music from the 1950s but for her contributions to the civil rights movements. Born on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, she nurtured her music passion from the beginning.
After leaving the Julliard School in New York where she was studying classical piano, she turned to performing in nightclubs focusing mainly on jazz, blues and folk music. Becoming an activist, she later left the U.S. for Europe to escape racism and segregation. Simone passed away on this day (April 21) in 2003.
Nina Simone wasn’t the singer’s real name. She was born Eunice Waymon, however, when she was 21, she decided to change her name to Nina Simone so that her mother will not know about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her while “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress the singer had admiration for.
She began her career in protest at age 12
Simone discovered her talent as a pianist at an early age, and she usually performed at church revival meetings as a child. When she was 12, she refused to play at a church revival because her parents were asked to sit at the back of the hall. That began her activism, with many of her songs condemning racism.
Her most influential protest song, “Mississippi Goddam”, was inspired by the Alabama church bombing and the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
“It was more than I could take,” Simone recalled. “The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination.”
Released as a single, the swearword was bleeped out so that people are not offended yet the song received backlash. Most Southern states banned it. Venues refused to book Simone. Unperturbed, Simone went ahead to sing the song at civil rights rallies and marches, including the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March in early 1965. Simone changed the lyric during scores of live performances around the country and the world to reflect what was happening at a particular moment.
The singer even played on top of caskets in Montgomery.
She never had a number one hit
Despite releasing more than 40 albums and having 15 Grammy nominations, Simone never had a number one hit. Reports said her highest-charting hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Her music would nevertheless inspire other artistes. Today, she has been sampled by a number of musicians including Kanye West, Jay Z, John Legend, Talib Kweli, Timbaland, Lil Wayne, and Bilal, among others.
Her ashes were scattered in several African countries
Facing serious racism and often prevented from performing, Simone later moved to Europe and finally settled in France until she died. But she also lived in many homes in many countries such as Barbados, Liberia (where she reportedly danced nude in a disco), Ghana, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. When she died at her home in Southern France, her ashes were scattered in several African countries.
There is a sculpture of the soul legend erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the bronze heart of the sculpture.
She graduated valedictorian of her high school class
Simone was a brilliant student who graduated valedictorian of her high school class before studying classical piano at one of the top music schools in the world – Julliard School in New York City. She applied to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music but was denied admission. Simone believed that she was denied because she was Black. The school would end up awarding her an honorary degree some days before her death. The legendary singer and activist also received two other honorary degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.
She suffered from bipolar disorder
Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s. Her bipolar disorder first emerged in 1967 some years after giving birth to her daughter Lisa Celeste Shroud. The singer was found confused and applying makeup on her hair in her dressing room. It would take more than two decades before she was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. She was prescribed Trilafon to help manage her mood swings.
“My mother suffered greatly, but she also left us with pearls and gifts of wisdom,” said Stroud. “Sometimes I try to put myself in her shoes and ask what I would have done if I was her. Would I have curled up in a foetus position in the nearest closet I could find? Would I have taken a one-way ticket to Tibet? Would I have tried to commit suicide? I don’t know, but I don’t know I would have had the same strength that she did.”